From ‘villain’ to victim – Campbell shows the way

Back in the 80s, when press releases were sent by telex and ‘cc’ literally meant ‘carbon copy’ I was a wet-behind-the-ears junior account assistant at Spectrum, at that time a leading southern African PR consultancy headed by industry doyen George Foot.

The very first thing George ever taught me was the PR 1.01 staple: “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel”. Followed closely by: “there are a thousand ways to skin that cat”.

Since then I’ve grown up a bit, learned a little and run a gazillion media training courses. And in every one of those I’ve passed on George’s advice and extended it to include a caution about on-air rows with television and radio presenters.

The theory being: unless you control the sub’s desk, the cutting floor, the mixing desk or you host the show, your chances of besting a journalist or a TV or radio presenter in a flat-out ding-dong are slim to zero.

In a broadcast scenario, when you find yourself faced with an aggressive presenter or interviewee don’t even think about trying to win the argument. The best you can do is articulate your points and let the audience be the judge.

The average viewer or listener is going to go off you faster than an Arab leader’s bank transfer.

The follow-on from that is that, quite often, the audience is neutral. And their sympathies are fickle. If they like you, they’ll cut you a lot of slack. If you alienate them, they’ll hate you from the start. And there are a heap of ways to influence the way they swing.

Of course, the beauty is that in many cases (not all) this applies as much to the interviewer as to the interviewee. How many times have you wanted an interviewer simply to shut up and let the guest answer the question?

As the odds-on favourite hate-figure in any aggressive interview, one of the ways to make your situation even worse is to embark on a little rant about your critics. The average viewer or listener is going to go off you faster than an Arab leader’s bank transfer.

By far the best way to emerge victorious is to answer the questions fully, honestly, calmly and politely – with as much genuine humanity and warmth as you can muster – and let your inquisitor do the ranting and lose the sympathy of the audience.

Which is what happened to TV3’s John Campbell on last night’s Campbell Live. The man lost it! He went completely over the top in his treatment of ‘quake forecaster’ Ken Ring and, in so doing, simultaneously handed Ring the sympathy of the audience and, in my opinion, damaged his own credibility.

Ring, who is credited by many for predicting accurately the devastating Christchurch earthquake on 22 February, also stands accused of peddling pseudo-science. There were so many ways for Campbell to discredit Ring (as it appears was the editorial agenda) but, in his apparent anxiety to be the Paxman of the Southern Ocean, he opted for the sarcastic bully-boy routine.

Paxman, of course, wields a far more finely honed scalpel. He not only knows when to turn pit-bull (when his audience has decided they don’t like the interviewee), but also when to deploy the quizzically-raised eyebrow or the sceptically drawn-out “yessss”. And when to just shut up and give his subject enough rope to with which to hang himself.

Look, I’m all for Kiwi media adopting a less patsy-like and reverential approach to their interviewees. I’m on record as urging Kiwi businesses and organisations to harden up and learn to deal effectively with aggressive interviews instead of whinging about them and trying to control and resist them. Ring needed to be asked tough questions, for sure  – but the way Campbell dealt with it simply gave the guy the moral victory.

Instead of exposing Ring in some way he simply turned him into a victim. And God knows, we love a victim.

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